SBJ/June 4 - 10, 2001/No Topic Name

League says it has the skill

A perfect slogan for Major League Lacrosse might be "If you hated the XFL ..."

The first-ever outdoor professional lacrosse league, which makes its debut Thursday and will field teams in six Northeast markets, is positioned as wholesome, family entertainment — with the best players ever assembled in the sport.

"Some of the other new sports leagues have launched with retreads or guys who can't play at the highest level," said Garry Roe, the MLL's executive director. "You can't fool the general public. If the play isn't there from either an excitement or talent standpoint, they're going to go away."

Although the MLL has made a few crowd-pleasing rule changes, like a two-point play and a 45-second shot clock, its goal is to appeal to lacrosse purists first.

The MLL won't even have much in common with the indoor National Lacrosse League, a nine-team pro circuit that averaged a respectable 8,437 fans a game last season. When the MLL staged a six-game all-star tour last summer, the male 24- to 35-year-olds who dominate the stands at indoor games were nowhere to be found. Instead, the bleachers were filled with families and their preteen children, mixed in with high school and college-age lacrosse players.

"We tried cheerleaders and loud music during play," Roe said. "The universal response we got was our fans don't like that."

Roe heads a full-time staff of 10 out of offices in Secaucus, N.J.

The league is jointly owned by team operators, who have about a 60 percent stake, and a central investment team headed by fitness guru Jake Steinfeld, Warrior Lacrosse owner Dave Morrow, Family Channel founder Tim Robertson and Roe.

Team operators each paid a franchise fee of about $1 million and must cover all franchise operating expenses. Players earn anywhere from $8,000 to $22,000 a season.

Roe said the league as a whole expects to gross about $6 million this season but will probably lose about $2 million.

"We're not naive enough to think we'll make money the first year," he said.

Teams will each play seven home games in facilities that range in capacity from 4,700 to 12,000, and the league projects an average attendance of 5,000 a game, equal to what the exhibition games drew last summer.

As of last week, teams had sold an average of 920 season tickets. The Rochester (N.Y.) Rattlers led the way with more than 1,600.

To back the individual teams' marketing efforts, the league also is running a print ad campaign in lacrosse publications and four major daily newspapers: The Sun in Baltimore, Newsday, Rochester Democrat and Boston Herald. And the league has teamed up with Host Communications to create its own magazine, Fuel, to be sold at games.

In addition, two vans will travel to lacrosse tournaments, fairs and concerts throughout the summer, unrolling interactive exhibits that test the speed or accuracy of a lacrosse shot.

"No one has ever promoted the sport of lacrosse like the league is about to," said Steve Donner, CEO and part-owner of the Rattlers and a shareholder in three other Rochester professional sports teams.

To date, the league has sold only three of six available sponsorship slots, to Anheuser-Busch's Bud Light, Yahoo! Sports and SoBe Beverages, now part of PepsiCo. Each will get logo placement on one team's uniform, field-side advertising and two 30-second commercial spots in every game telecast. For that they each pay an average of $1.5 million in cash over three years, Roe said.

Reebok and Morrow's Warrior Lacrosse are two of six official suppliers.

Sponsors got good news from the league when the television schedule was announced. Originally, the league had promised that 24 games would be televised, but Fox Sports Net and five regional stations ultimately agreed to air a total of 60 MLL contests, more than doubling the advertising inventory allotted to sponsors.

As important as the cash portion of the sponsorships is an agreement to help market the sport. Roe said each sponsorship deal includes guarantees that the sponsors will back the league through consumer promotions or themed advertising.

Yahoo! Sports will run the league's all-star balloting online, as it does with the MLS.

Anheuser-Busch will place four to six Bud Light billboards in each MLL market touting its official sponsorship, the league said. SoBe will give away MLL products from its six "Lizard Mobiles," which travel to concerts and other events throughout the summer. It also will tag radio ads with a mention of the MLL. SoBe founder Bill Bishop owns the MLL's Long Island Lizards, who have adopted the SoBe logo as the team's.

Roe said that the league twice walked away from potential sponsors who viewed the MLL only as a media buy and would not commit to marketing the sport.

Major League Lacrosse
franchise capsules
Baltimore Bayhawks
Venue/capacity: Homewood Field (Johns Hopkins University)/10,000
Owner-operators: Gordan Boone, Chris Hutchins, Dave Pivec, Ray Schulmeyer
Boston Cannons
Venue/capacity: Cawley Stadium (Lowell, Mass.)/6,800
Owner-operator: Matt Dwyer
Bridgeport Barrage
Venue/capacity: Harbour Yard/5,300
Owner-operators: Charlie Dowd, Mickey Hebert, Ken Paul
Long Island Lizards
Venue/capacity: EAB Park (Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y.)/12,000
Owner-operators: Bill Bishop, Billy Bishop, et al.
New Jersey Pride
Venue/capacity: Yogi Berra Stadium (Montclair, N.J.)/4,700
Owner-operators: John Flood, Bob Turco
Rochester Rattlers
Venue/capacity: Frontier Field/10,868
Owner-operators: Frank DuRoss, Steve Donner, Chris Economides
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